The Tragic Real-Life Story Of LL Cool J

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The following article includes details of domestic violence and child abuse.

Before he was known as LL Cool J (aka Ladies Love Cool James), James Todd Smith grew up in a rough part of Queens, New York, where his life was anything but easy. Long before his Grammys hosting duties and SiriusXM "Rock The Bells" channel, LL had a front-row seat to violence. The rapper didn't just write "Momma Said Knock You Out" — he lived it, and his path to stardom wasn't a smooth ride. Early startup woes included having his dad and his friend as managers. This might sound like LL surrounded himself with people who would look out for his best interests, right? Wrong. 

Increasing popularity in the early 1990s meant groupies galore for LL. Before settling down with longtime love Simone Smith, LL was on the road to ruin in his personal life. Years later, things were going great, until a cancer diagnosis forced the rapper to step back from his career and support his wife. This wouldn't be the last time a health diagnosis halted his professional plans, either. 

Nowadays, LL Cool J is perhaps most known for his role as Special Agent Sam Hanna on CBS' "NCIS: Los Angeles," his hosting gig on the oft-viral "Lip Sync Battle," and 30-plus movie roles. But none of those things would've happened if LL hadn't made the decision to take the reins of his career, despite some tragic details of his life

LL Cool J's dad shot his mother and granddad

Growing up, LL was was surrounded by drugs and violence. When he was 4 years old, he witnessed violence firsthand when his dad, James Nunya, shot his mom, Ondrea Smith, and granddad, Eugene Griffith. As LL described in his 1998 memoir "I Make My Own Rules," Nunya was angry with Smith for leaving him and taking their son with her. LL's father shot his mother in the back and his grandfather in the stomach.

"In the kitchen, there was blood everywhere. It was splattered on the refrigerator, on the floor, on the walls — deep, dark red all over the place. There were bullet holes in the wall and in the refrigerator," LL wrote.

Both his mother and grandfather survived the shooting. While things were rocky for the family for a while, LL said on "Oprah's Next Chapter" that he and his mother both forgave Nunya for the shooting. His father came back into his life and made amends, even helping LL navigate his early music career. "My father, he made a massive blunder, but he also did a lot of things right, and so I have learned to hand out the mercy that I'd like to receive," LL said.

The two seemed to rebuild their relationship until the end of Nunya's life in 2012, when LL told the world his dad had died, tweeting, "RIP to My Father James Nunya. You passed away yesterday. But The lessons you taught me live on in my heart. Thank you. I love you."

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

His mom's boyfriend beat him

LL Cool J was exposed to more violence when his mother's new boyfriend, who LL nicknames "Roscoe" in his memoir, entered the pictured. According to LL, Roscoe lived with them for almost 10 years. LL said the man was a drug addict who used in front of him. In his memoir, LL compared living with Roscoe to sleeping in a cemetery with a dragon, writing, "It was the most horrible experience. I was defenseless and I didn't understand. The pain went so deep."

In an interview, he told Oprah that Roscoe would tell him to strip and beat him with objects like vacuum cleaner pipes and extension cords. LL said he spent much of his childhood living in his imagination to get through the abuse. "All of this [beating] is terrifying," he said. "But as soon as you walk out of that room, I'm back in my mind. I'm back in my imaginary world where everything is great, where my dreams come true, where I can make something of myself." But his imagination could only take him so far. LL told the Chicago Tribune in 1997 that the domestic abuse turned him into the schoolyard bully, who toted knives and guns.

Shortly after his memoir's publication, a man named Gaston Roscoe Granger told the Daily Press that he was the man LL referred to in his book. While Granger admitted to smoking marijuana, reportedly never in front LL, he denied all other wrongdoing.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Friend's murder remains a mystery

LL Cool J's friend and mentor, Run-DMC's Jam Master Jay, was shot and killed at his studio in Queens in 2002. To this day, there are limited details on the incident, but witnesses say it was a drug deal gone wrong. No arrests were made in the murder for nearly 18 years, until two men were arrested and charged in 2020. LL reacted to the news, telling Rolling Stone, "[Jay's death] is one of the things that make me have thoughts that I don't want to talk about in interviews, so I'm just glad that what happened with the indictment happened now, and I'll leave it there. I'll take 18 years over no years; 18 is better than nothing." LL toured with Run DMC when he was a teenager and said the band "put me under their wing." 

"Jay was just a guy that I always had an admiration for, that I looked to as a big brother who I argued with, who I talked music with, who I butted heads with in a good way," he said about his time on the road with the group.

Satan reportedly visited LL Cool J

In the early 1990s, LL Cool J was on top of the world — professionally, that is. However, his personal life was in shambles, and he was on the road to becoming a "sex junkie." Mixed in the rotation of women was his on-again, off-again girlfriend Simone, who he had a child with at age 19. Fatherhood spooked him, so he said he would leave and come back, a routine that went on for years, until the two married in 1995. But getting to that point took a visit from someone unexpected: Satan.

"He came to me, wanting me to sell my soul," LL told the Chicago Tribune. "I couldn't see him, but he held me down and told me, 'You can be whatever you want to be, but you have to say yes.' I said 'no.' And after that, my life went down. Everything around me was just crumbling. But then it just started looking brighter again. I just kept the faith and believed in God." LL said he slept with a Bible after the visit. Things got better, as his 2000 album "G.O.A.T." hit the no. 1 spot on Billboard's charts.

He owed $2 million due to his dad's mismanagement

Years after LL Cool J and his dad reconciled, James Nunya became his son's manager. The rapper said things in his career seemed great for a while, but then came to the conclusion that his dad was not managing his money properly. "He wasn't making sure my taxes got paid. He was ringing up personal stuff on corporate credit cards. And he wasn't looking out for my money, and others were stealing from me," LL said in the book "LL Cool J" by Dustin Shekell. Unaware of his brewing money troubles, he told the Chicago Tribune that he bought 12 cars, over 2,000 hats, and enough "jewelry pieces banging off my chest until I'm black and blue."

But it wasn't long until Nunya's mismanagement resulted in his son owing $2 million to the IRS. "Putting my destiny in other people's hands isn't smart," he told the Chicago Tribune. On top of the financial burdens, LL felt that his dad was not looking out for his budding movie career, believing that Nunya was not passing along scripts for him to read. LL fired his dad as his manager but said that experience shaped how he'd do business in the future.

"Today, I'm aware of every role, every offer, every deal, and every dime that comes in through my camp. I'm involved with every decision," he noted in "LL Cool J."

Betrayed by a friend

Unfortunately for LL Cool J, betrayal did not end once his father left the picture. His experience with this dad made LL take a closer look at the people around him, including his friend and co-manger Brian Latture. According to the book "LL Cool J", LL felt that Latture was focusing too much of his attention on managing fellow rapper Nas. But the real breaking point was when LL told Latture to give manager Cornell Clark money to lessen the pain of dying with AIDS. It wasn't until after Clark's death that LL realized Latture never followed instructions.

"I had been badly burned," LL said in the book. "My best friend — my son's godfather and my manager — had betrayed me ... There are no words to describe how disgusted I was and still am."

LL eventually parted ways with Latture and reportedly went to the bank to freeze his account to stop his father taking advantage of him for good. This might have been the last time LL was taken advantage of by members of his team, but would not be the last hardship of his career.

The rapper's shocking discovery about his ancestry

On an episode of PBS' "Finding Your Roots," LL Cool J learned that his mother was adopted, meaning the grandparents who raised him were not his blood relatives. After reviewing his mother's birth certificate on the show, experts found that her birth parents were not listed on the document. Still, the experts on the show were able to identify them using the New York City Birth Index. They found Smith was born with the name Andra Jolly. While this came as a surprise to LL, he said it didn't change how he viewed the family that raised him.

"I can understand why they didn't tell her. They didn't want her to feel like she didn't belong. They didn't want us to feel like we didn't belong," LL said about the discovery. "I have more love and respect for them than I ever did. Ever," LL said about his grandparents.

LL and Smith also met more biological relatives they didn't know they had on the show, including aunts and cousins. "I follow 'NCIS' religiously. You're on Monday at 10," LL's newfound aunt Claudia Lewis said when she met LL. Their new family even showed Smith and LL home videos of his great-uncle, John Henry Lewis, boxing. "He's got a nice jab. Gettin' busy," LL said in awe as he watched the footage.

The star's wife gets cancer

LL Cool J and Simone Smith married in 1995, and life was good until 2004 when Simone was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, a rare bone cancer. She underwent surgery, which lasted 15 hours. She told ET that LL was "her rock" during that time. "I remember sitting in the doctor's office, and he wanted to give his fibula bone ... because he felt that his fibula bone would be bigger and stronger." He also wanted his wife to be surrounded by good vibes only after the surgery.

"Todd would tell them, 'You can't go in there crying' because you need positive energy.'" Simone said. Her two-and-a half year recovery process meant she had to learn to walk again. "I went from a wheelchair to two crutches, to one crutch to a cane," she told ET.

A tattoo of a lollipop on Simone's foot was disfigured due to a skin graft, so when she launched her jewelry line — Simone I. Smith — she designed a lollipop necklace that she and LL wear around their necks. LL told Oprah that a portion of the proceeds from the necklace go to the American Cancer Society.

LL Cool J's COVID diagnosis

In the most recent LL Cool J hiccup, the star was scheduled to perform at "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve With Ryan Seacrest 2022," but tested positive for COVID-19 before the event. "I know it's disappointing to the millions of fans but my test came back positive for COVID, which means I'll no longer be able to perform as scheduled at NYRE," he said in a statement to People. "We were ready and I was really looking forward to ringing in 2022 in my hometown in a special way, but for now I wish everyone a healthy and happy New Year. The best is yet to come!" 

Times Square was already going to look different for the TV special due to the rising number of COVID cases across the country. Only 15,000 people were allowed in the streets for the event, compared to the usual 58,000 capacity. "Have Mercy" singer Chlöe also canceled her scheduled performance in the Big Apple.

The diagnosis also came before LL's 54th birthday on January 14. Talk about a party pooper!